(Pictured above: Members of United Spinal Association’s New York City chapter enjoyed the accessible Citi Field on SCI Awareness Day.)
Arriving at a location and facing barriers that impede your entry or access can be a source of never-ending frustration for people with disabilities. It would be logical to think that over 30 years after the ADA, these barriers would be a thing of the past, but they remain prevalent.
Many nondisabled people think “accessibility” simply pertains to bathrooms and elevators or ramps, but as wheelchair users, we understand it’s much bigger than that. While we each do our part to educate and improve access in our daily lives, wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone else fighting behind the scenes on our behalf? It turns out there is.
Over 30 years ago, United Spinal Association launched its Accessibility Services division to help shape the country’s accessibility codes, educate the people building America’s future and fight for the accessible future envisioned in the ADA. Today, the division’s legacy is visible in buildings and structures all over the country, and its staff is in high demand as one of the leading experts when it comes to ensuring access.
Vice President Dominic Marinelli has been with United Spinal since 1988 and has overseen the Accessibility Services division since its inception. Today his team has grown to nine members, including certified accessibility specialists, architects, plan examiners, and building inspectors.
As Marinelli recently explained on the United on Wheels podcast, Accessibility Services has always been a vital part of code development and national accessibility standards. Many team members played key roles in drafting the regulations that guide accessible planning and remain involved in the technical committees that develop and improve accessibility codes and standards to this day. They work tirelessly to ensure that universities, ballparks, museums, government buildings and more accommodate all people with disabilities.
Committed to Access
When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 31 years ago, the law was only part of the puzzle in making the country inclusive to people with disabilities. While the ADA didn’t focus on residential buildings, the Accessibility Services team helped secure changes to the International Existing Building Code to ensure older residential buildings considered accessible upgrades when undergoing restorations and renovations. This was essential for wheelchair users looking for housing who could not afford newer buildings and changed the landscape for residential remodeling and access.
“United Spinal’s Accessibility Services, and its predecessor organization, Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of America, has been deeply involved in the development of accessibility codes and standards for over 30 years,” says Marsha Mazz, director of accessibility codes and standards for Accessibility Services. “We believe that excellence in code enforcement, honest interpretations regardless of their outcome, and working with other interest groups who may not always have our same values is the most effective way to advocate for accessibility throughout the built environment.”
Accessibility Services assists a national client base to comply with state and federal accessibility requirements. Kay Pearson, director of special projects at Accessibility Services, explains that “whether during construction or after completion, we inspect structures for compliance with applicable accessibility codes and standards. If we find compliance issues problems, we identify the issue, provide the citation for the problem, make recommendations to cure it, and provide cost estimation as necessary.”
Preventing access issues from progressing to litigation is always preferable, so Accessibility Services focuses on education and reform where possible. As the demand for accessibility in design increases, architects are looking to learn, and Accessibility Services provides them with the education they need. Accessibility Services is the longest-tenured provider of continuing education for the American Institute of Architects.
While the team usually conducts in-person instruction, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to migrate online. When pandemic-related construction and real estate restrictions temporarily halted on-site inspections, the team found that places getting ready to re-open needed extra guidance. With that, Accessibility Services developed a playbook on how businesses could implement the CDC guidelines while still meeting accessibility standards.
Additionally, the team is involved in national task groups that continually research ways to improve access to toilet and bathing facilities and develop new requirements for facilities like nursing homes and harmonize codes and standards with the federal ADA and Fair Housing requirements.
The Future is Accessible
When thinking about the future and Accessibility Services’ role therein, it’s instructive to think about “the curb cut effect.” Akin to the law of unintended consequences for accessible design, the curb cut effect is the idea that rules, regulations and programs designed to benefit wheelchair users often end up benefiting all of society. Similarly, Accessibility Services will continue to fight for access for Americans with disabilities, yet its impact will undoubtedly have a much broader positive impact on society in general.
Accessibility Services’ Impactful Projects
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
From the moment you enter the gates at the San Diego Zoo, you can feel that someone in tune with wheelchair uses was part of the planning process when the zoo underwent renovations. The Zoo Safari Park presented some real challenges, according to Marinelli. “Most of Safari Park is outdoors, and the whole idea is that you can get up close and personal with lions and other wild animals,” he says. “We had to figure out how to create access so disabled visitors can get close to these big animals and still be safe.”
Accessibility Services has worked with notable universities, including Cornell University, Hofstra University and North Carolina State University. Marinelli estimates his team has tackled improving access at 75-100 universities and colleges. Asked if any stood out for the obstacles they presented, he singled out Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “With 300 years of history and historic buildings, there is a tug of war. You want to improve access but at what cost?” says Marinelli. The project appealed to Marinelli for another, more personal reason too. “I wasn’t smart enough to go to school there, so it was especially fun to go back as a consultant.”
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Mazz and Pearson wrote the new accessibility guidelines for the Port Authority, which was no small task. The Authority covers four major airports, trains, buses, buildings, and much more. “These guidelines cover everything in the built environment that you can think of,” says Marinelli. From room measurements to recommended hardware, to signage and beyond, when it comes to accessibility on Port Authority property or services, every little detail has been laid out by Accessibility Services. As the guidelines are implemented, look for more space to maneuver larger wheelchairs and automatic doors at every entrance, in addition to adult changing stations in the airports, allowing people with disabilities traveling with caregivers the freedom to travel with more dignity.
With United Spinal’s then-headquarters just a 10-minute drive away, the New York Mets didn’t need to look far for a consultant to ensure its new home was an accessible oasis in Queens. From the heights of counters at concessions to the amount and location of accessible seating and even the inclusion of cupholders at accessible seats, inclusion is integrated throughout the new ballpark. A Mets fan himself, Marinelli credits the organization with going above and beyond minimum accessibility requirements in many areas, including doubling the amount of wheelchair accessible spaces.
— Kristen Parisi, New Mobility Magazine, April 2021